Arsenal ended their recent poor run of form with a narrow and hard-fought 1-0 victory over QPR at the weekend, but their defensive deficiencies were nearly exposed late on by the visitors, who had been reduced to ten men by that point and it seems that despite the fawning, hugely over the top praise attributed to assistant manager Steve Bould, not that much has changed at the club despite the Pravda-style company line that they’re much better this term.
The clean sheet that they managed to keep at home to Mark Hughes’ struggling outfit was their first in nine games, after losing to Norwich and Schalke in back-to-back matches and conceding goals against Southampton, Montpellier, Coventry, Manchester City, Chelsea, Olympiacos and West Ham across all competitions. It was their first clean sheet since the their 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield on September 2nd, nearly two months later, hardly a statistic that will be given much air in the press.
Arsenal have developed a worrying trend in the past five years of conceding more goals in the league than the year before. In 2007-8 it was 31 goals, in 2008-9 it was 37 goals, 2009-10 it was 41 goals, in 2010-11 it was 43 goals and last term it was 49. However, this season has seen them ship just six in their opening nine league games, keeping four clean sheets, so on the face of it at least, there’s been a hefty improvement, right?
The best answer yet is ‘sort of’, but the clean sheets themselves came against Sunderland, Stoke, QPR and Liverpool and reasons can be attributed to every single one of those sides. Martin O’Neill’s side have had just 12 shots on target so far this campaign, 16 fewer than anyone else and they already look hugely reliant on the form of one man, Steven Fletcher.
Tony Pulis’ side have struck just eight goals in their opening nine games this season and have drawn six of those and they showed little to no ambition against Arsene Wenger’s team. QPR are bottom of the league and have scored just seven times while Liverpool were oddly flat on home turf and with Fabio Borini leading the line they didn’t pose the greatest threat, even if that largely may have been down to a dominant team performance in midfield.
The form of Mikel Arteta just in front of the back four has been exceptional and he’s taken to his new role well, while Carl Jenkinson and Per Mertesacker, much-maligned in the past, have been consistent Moreover, whenever Kieran Gibbs can stay fit he’s performed, but the form of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen has grown increasingly erratic and they still appear to lack positional discipline, while the horror show that Andre Santos displayed against Schalke cannot be blamed on anyone but Wenger for selecting him.
Former Arsenal midfielder Stewart Robson hinted that all may not be well between Wenger and Bould and told talkSPORT last week: “I hoped that [when Bould was appointed] he would do more with the defence but I’m not sure whether he’s being allowed to do that by Arsene Wenger. I think there might be a rift in the camp between those two from what I’ve heard.”
Of course, the validity of this statement is extremely patchy at best and can be seen as little more than an attack on Wenger by an embittered former employee with an agenda. The critique that the Frenchman may be stopping Bould from getting his teeth into the back four would seem to fit in with the anti-Wenger sect of the club’s support; that he’s one-eyed and intent on doing things his way and his way alone, but any evidence of supposed rift is in short supply. Oddly, many fans are now taking the side of Bould over Wenger in this debate, which shows you the extent to which the hype has been built up around the 49-year-old in the media.
The truth of the matter is that individual errors still continue to separate Arsenal from the clubs above them in the league and cost them dearly against both Manchester City and Chelsea. They still look vulnerable at set-pieces and when put under pressure and there’s a worry about both how deep they defend and whether their defensive line is strong enough to play the offside trap at times.
Appointing Bould was hailed at the time and then praised over the top when Arsenal kept three clean sheets on the bounce at the start of the season, completely ignoring the context of the teams that they were playing against and the performances of the opposition. Hailing the former defender as the solution makes easy copy and any criticism of him since their poor defensive run has been in short supply as it simply doesn’t fit in with the accepted logic of how he’s performed. Presumably, Bould had a hand in the defensive development of the likes of Johan Djourou, Phillipe Senderos and Kieran Gibbs to name a few. Hardly a ringing endorsement for future positional discipline.
Bould was being praised for work behind the scenes which none of us were privy to and the only tangible evidence we have is whether they look improved on the pitch on match-day. They certainly look more organised than they did last season, but the fault lies with the players themselves.
There is no magic wand to solve their defensive problems and the assistant manager is far from the saviour he’s been made out to be, he’s simply pretty good at his job, no more. For those looking for simple, sweeping statements, then Bould may be the answer to stop the rot, but football doesn’t really work like that and they’ll continue to range from excellent to woeful just so long as the make-up of the back four remains the same. Has the Bould effect worn off? For many of us, there was never much of one in the first place.
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